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Veterinary Forum May 2007 (Vol 24, No 5)

Editor's Note: "Monkey Business"

by Marie Rosenthal

    If we share 96% of our DNA with the great apes, should they have more legal standing than they currently do? And if the answer is yes, what should that standing be? These questions are being argued in Vienna, Austria, where Paula Stibbe has asked a court to name her the legal guardian of a chimpanzee named Hiasl. Stibbe argues that since chimps and humans are so genetically similar, chimps deserve the same rights as humans.

    But do they?

    Isn't what makes us human more than just genetics? The ability to reason? Communicate? Empathize? Sympathize? A sense of self?

    The chimpanzee Hiasl does have many of these qualities, including a sense of self. According to an article in Time, chimps have complex social hierarchies, can make and use tools, can teach their young how to use those tools and can be taught to communicate through signing.

    But they are not human, even though they are our closest genetic relative. Therefore, I doubt a court will find that the chimp deserves human rights. (Heck, we can't guarantee human rights for all humans!)

    But does that mean that the great apes should be treated like every other animal? Does their standing in the animal kingdom hierarchy mean they should have special status? And if so, what should that status be? I have a feeling the debate will not end with this court case, but I am eager to know the decision.

    In this country, I predict the class action lawsuit over the pet food recall will shake up the ideas about the legal standing of more than just chimps. What will happen when Americans find out that Fluffy and Max are just property?

    I was talking about these issues to Bernard Rollin, PhD, who sits on the Forum Editorial Board and is editor of our Clinical Ethics column. Bernie has been a champion of animal rights for more than 20 years and has written and testified on their behalf numerous times.

    "It is so obvious that the notion of animals as simply personal property is no longer in keeping with the societal ethical thrust across the Western world," Rollin tells me.

    But raising the value of animals can be a Pandora's box, even for veterinarians who tout the importance of the humaní€"animal bond. Many are afraid that if the status of animals changes, they will be subject to more malpractice suits. However, great value in this country is reflected in financial considerations, Rollin says, adding that the status of animals will change in this country--it's just a matter of time--because more than 80 law schools now have courses on animal law. And lawyers, like nature, abhore a vaccuum.

    I don't think Haisl should be allowed to vote, but maybe someone should be able to keep him out of a laboratory. And perhaps, pets should have a special status, too, somewhere below children, but above the family car. There has to be a middle ground for our beloved pets--a legal acknowledgment that our pets are more than just property.

    NEXT: Expanding road network depopulating forest elephant